In “Casa Tomada” (“House Taken Over”), a 1946 short story by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, a woman named Irene and her brother live together in an enormous house. As they enter middle age, the spacious rooms surrounding them are the only thing they have: Irene has rejected two marriage proposals, and the brother’s girlfriend has passed away. They are quintessential porteños—Buenos Aires natives, in this case descended from the aristocracy. “The quiet, simple marriage of sister and brother,” the latter narrates, “was the indispensable end to a line established in this house by our grandparents.” In this vaguely incestuous relationship, she knits one sweater after another while he makes a map for the reader, carefully describing each room. Their upper-class existence is seemingly unbothered by the increasingly derelict world outside.
Then something happens: a sound comes from one of the back rooms, and the narrator has to shut the door. He announces, “They’ve taken over the back part,” and returns to his daily activities. Slowly but steadily, this mysterious noise emanates from different sections of the house, taking over the kitchen, then the bathroom, then the living room. Finally, the noise pursues the siblings out of their home. They lock the front door and venture into the city.
“Casa Tomada” takes place in a Buenos Aires that is undergoing dramatic changes. In the 1940s, following an unprecedented rural-to-urban migration during the rise of Peronism, the working class became increasingly more visible in the capital and disruptive to its elites. Cortázar’s story, which dramatizes this economic tension, is a possible urtext for Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses, a collection of seven short stories all set in today’s class-segregated Buenos Aires. In them, as in Cortázar’s story, the city is a capricious force where citizens meet, clash, and interrelate in ways that disturb class divisions.
In “Forty Centimeters Squared,” for example, a young Argentine woman who has recently moved back from Spain meanders through the Carranza train station, while her family thinks she is out buying aspirin for her mother-in-law. She thinks about the forty-seven boxes that she left behind in a storage unit when she moved abroad, and remarks longingly:
I’m almost positive that in the box that says “Bathroom,” there’s a blister pack of aspirin pills. But now that we’re back in Buenos Aires, we still haven’t gone to get those boxes. We have to find a new apartment first, and before that, we have to save back some of all the money we lost.
She watches the trains as they pull into the station and then leave. She sits on a bench next to an old man, possibly homeless, who “smells like garbage, but [is] friendly.” They strike up a conversation, and she mentions her boxes. He shows her a map of the city, but she can only fantasize about her storage unit, the weight of the house that she lost when she moved away. Finally, she resigns herself:
The old man is waiting for me. He looks down for a second and I see he has a pair of eyes drawn on his eyelids, just like the Santa Clauses on the Christmas tree. I think I should stand up, that once I’m at the storage unit I’ll recognize the box I need. But I can’t do it. I can’t even move. If I stand up I’ll have to see how much room my body really occupies. And if I look at the map—the old man holds it out a little closer to me, in case that will help—I’ll find that, in the whole city, there is no place I can point to.
Schweblin was born in Buenos Aires in 1978 and raised in the historically Anglo-Argentine suburb of Hurlingham. In the late nineteenth century the town housed mostly English and Irish immigrants who made their living working on the capital’s new railway lines. Today, the tracks they built divide Hurlingham in two, separating the middle-class section from the old-money Barrio Inglés. Schweblin’s grandfather, Alfredo de Vincenzo, was an artist and the owner of a prestigious engraving workshop. As a child, she visited him frequently for what he called an “artist’s training,” reading short stories aloud to the adults in the workshop and going on excursions with him to all corners of Argentine bohemia. Together, they embarked on tours of Buenos Aires’s grand buildings, visited poetry readings, and danced tango and zarzuela. Like many of the characters in Seven Empty Houses, they also momentarily traded the comfort of their middle-class life for chaos and grit: jumping turnstiles, stealing used books, betting on horses, and wandering into dive bars to watch the crowd.
In 2012 Schweblin moved to Berlin on a fellowship with DAAD, a publicly funded German organization for artistic and cultural exchanges, and has lived there ever since. She initially didn’t speak a word of German, but she found a vibrant Latin American literary scene through the workshops she gave in the homey Spanish-language bookstore Andenbuch (run by a former anthropologist from Argentina) and the restaurant Gloria, a meeting point for South American expats with monthly tango nights.
As is true for many writers living abroad, Schweblin’s native language became a precious commodity. In Berlin’s babel of Spanish speakers—where Schweblin often heard accents from Guatemala, Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and elsewhere—she denaturalized her Argentine voice, stripping it down to the bare minimum. Even as she investigated very porteño themes, her prose started drifting away from regionalism.
This period proved to be the most productive of Schweblin’s life thus far. In 2014 she wrote Fever Dream, a captivating novella about children poisoned by agrotóxicos, lethal Monsanto pesticides used in the expansive soy fields of the Pampas. Her most recent book, Little Eyes (2018), is a science fiction novel about small surveillance devices that connect people around the world. Seven Empty Houses, in some ways her most stylistically realist work, was published in Spanish in the interim, in 2015, and won the Narrativa Breve Ribera del Duero Prize, an award offered annually by a small wine region in northern Spain that carries one of the literary world’s largest cash rewards for short fiction. Although it was arguably her most commercially and critically successful work, it wasn’t translated in the United States until 2022, when it earned Schweblin and her longtime translator, Megan McDowell, the National Book Award for Translated Fiction. With this collection, Schweblin has established herself as one of the most original voices in Latin American literature and has made the hyperlocal tradition of her native Argentina intelligible to an anglophone audience.
Like porteños in their city (which has more psychologists per capita than any other in the world), the characters in Seven Empty Houses are all haunted by a sense of unease, an anxiety often about class that sets in as soon as they leave their homes. An encounter with other people can be quietly disturbing. Some stories in the collection end abruptly and chaotically; in others, characters observe their neighbors with rabid inquisitiveness, and then swiftly walk away. With an austere yet intense style, Schweblin unravels her characters’ dark psyches and the unheimlich quality of their intricate domesticity.
Take the opening story of the collection, “None of That,” in which a mother and daughter make a hobby out of driving around wealthy neighborhoods. The daughter, the narrator, looks with amazement at the mansions surrounding her. “They are immense,” she says. “They gleam atop their hills of freshly mown lawns, shining in the dazzling light of the setting sun.” Meanwhile, her mother sighs. “That is exactly what we do,” the girl thinks to herself. “Go out to look at houses. Go out to look at other people’s houses.” Wealth for them is impenetrable, unknowable, something to be seen only from the outside.
Then, a disturbance. The car gets stuck in the mud in front of one of the beautiful lawns. A little boy comes out, followed by his mother. The story becomes symmetrical: a lower-class mother and daughter sit in their muddied car while another mother and her son watch from their beautiful mansion. Suddenly, the narrator’s mother begins to cry inconsolably, panicking. The homeowner observes them, and the daughter thinks, “She doesn’t want us to be here, she wants us to disappear, but she doesn’t know how to make that happen.” The woman lets them into the house momentarily, and the mother steals a sugar bowl. “Where do people get all these things? And did you see there’s a staircase on either side of the living room?” she asks. “It makes me so sad I just want to die.”
At the end, the homeowner comes to retrieve her bowl from the narrator’s house, away from her own secluded neighborhood, and the daughter takes a sadistic pleasure in making her search for it in the apartment:
That’s how I realize what it is I want. I want her to look. I want her to move our things. I want her to inspect, set aside, and take apart. To remove everything from the boxes, to trample, rearrange, to throw herself on the ground, and also to cry. And I want my mother to come inside.
Much like Cortázar, Schweblin depicts a changing Buenos Aires. After the 2001 financial crisis, housing prices rose at the same time as the currency was devalued. A significant percentage of the population lost their homes or had to move into smaller, more affordable apartments. Slums and shantytowns expanded, and robberies became more common. Although this phenomenon is tied to Argentina’s unique economic history, the consequences are similar to those experienced in other global cities of the West, like Schweblin’s own Berlin: the shrinking availability of affordable housing leads to gentrification, which often forces established residents and newcomers into close quarters.
Schweblin’s characters could be classified into two groups that come together to stage this economic drama: the homeowners and the disrupters. The homeowners are melancholic, middle-class, proud, and seemingly in control. They are usually adults (some older than others) who cultivate the borders of their homes with dedication and resentment. They are overbearing mothers, divorced parents, lonely and rootless women. The disrupters upset the structures of the private, bourgeois life that the homeowners have built, and are generally the more interesting characters in the book; they are children, unbounded teenagers, unhinged adults, senile seniors, pedophiles, or beggars.
This collision is not explicitly political. Rather than arguing for or against the disruption of social classes, Schweblin seems interested in understanding the contact itself, its emotional and psychological consequences for those living a “traditional” life. In the story “Out,” an upper-middle-class woman from Chacarita—a gentrifying neighborhood where restaurants sprout between unsafe streets, train tracks, and a cemetery—flees her apartment after some unnamed episode of domestic tension. She’s wearing only a robe and a towel around her wet hair, and she doesn’t have her keys. In the elevator she meets a man who “seems like a janitor or a hired plumber or an electrician.” He says, “My wife is going to kill me,” then offers her a ride. She accepts but doesn’t give concrete directions, so they drive aimlessly down an empty street.
They agree to drive very slowly, rolling down the windows to let in the humid summer air. They don’t exchange names, but he tells her he’s an escapist, that his main job is to fix fire escapes. (Megan McDowell is a dexterous translator: in Spanish, escape means the exhaust pipe of a car, and she sharply maintains the wordplay.) The man also tells her he’s running very late to his anniversary dinner, which is why his wife is going to kill him, and she suggests buying flowers or chocolates. They stop to buy cigarettes and go on a short walk. She thinks he might be able to drive her to her sister’s. Then they say goodbye and drift apart. She does not usually interact with someone like him; their meeting has been tinged with the strangeness of her nudity. But there’s a fleeting moment of kinship. The woman says, “There’s a second when the escapist’s eyes look at me and seem to understand.”
Schweblin writes within the rioplatense short story tradition of the Río de la Plata, between the shores of Argentina and Uruguay, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The form dates to the mid-nineteenth century, when the Argentine Esteban Echeverría wrote “The Slaughter Yard,” a political masterpiece of a short story. After the turn of the century the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga published his macabre collections Jungle Tales and The Beheaded Hen and Other Stories, and shortly thereafter, in the 1930s, rioplatense took off when some of the region’s greats, such as Jorge Luis Borges, started publishing short stories in literary magazines.
During the rioplatense golden era—the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s, which, in Argentina, Cortázar inaugurated—the story could be about anything, but formally it was always sharp and concise, without so much as an extra syllable. Practitioners created insular pieces of literature that delved into single topics or events using a variety of styles and themes: magical realism (Cortázar’s “Axolotl”), philosophical inquiry (Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), realism to the point of existentialist depression (Juan Carlos Onetti’s “The Face of Disgrace”), realism to the point of horror (Felisberto Hernández’s “The Usher”), or political treatise (Silvina Ocampo’s “A Doll’s Secret Memories”).
The form’s brevity forced writers to achieve the precision, elegance, and density necessary for broad circulation in the growing media and print industries. (Buenos Aires eventually became a prominent center of publishing in Latin America; you could, and still can, buy many used and new books for cheap at newsstands all around town.) The story’s ending had to deliver a blunt blow, and at the same time reveal layered meanings to the reader. In this sense Seven Empty Houses remains true to the neatness of this quintessentially South American genre. Each detail in Schweblin’s stories is as relevant as Chekhov’s gun, as precious as a Nabokovian adjective, and as mundanely uncanny as Gogol. Her austerity is especially rewarding for the attentive reader. One leaves her stories only to come back and find new enigmas, feeling like the essential part of the text is yet to be discovered.
A brilliant example is the collection’s longest story, “Breath from the Depths,” which deals with class, memory, and loss. It features an elderly couple—Lola, a woman living with an unspecified disease, and her husband, whose name we never learn. Their domestic machinery is well oiled: he buys groceries, cooks, does the dishes, and repairs things around the house and garden while she watches TV. We learn that they avoid the subject of their deceased son, whose presence is suggested only by the hot cocoa that the husband buys and, Lola suspects, drinks in secret because their child liked it.
Everything in the house is a concealed invocation to the deceased child that the characters never allow themselves to address. Every day, Lola makes a list in her head, preparing for what she thinks is inevitable. “Classify everything. Donate what is expendable. Wrap what is important. Concentrate on death. If he meddles, ignore him.” Instead of preparing for death emotionally—connecting with relatives, writing to old flames—she does so logistically. She arranges her possessions, all contained within four walls, and channels into them her remaining fervor.
The couple leads this life of middle-class quietude until a family from a poorer neighborhood moves in next door, interrupting their rituals. “The neighborhood had turned dangerous,” announces a third-person narrator whose point of view is very close to Lola’s. “Poorer, dirtier.” She immediately distrusts these new residents, but her husband doesn’t. “Why are you so prejudiced?” he asks.
When he believes he is away from his wife’s gaze, he strikes up a friendship with the new child next door as part of his daily motions, meeting him where their gardens abut and speaking with him while hidden behind the bushes. For Lola, this incites a jealous neurosis; the relationship between their houses seems to her not only incomprehensible but also extremely dangerous. One day, as she is working on her classifying tasks, she is struck by a sense of fear:
She didn’t like those boys. Those boys could…. She stood thinking for another moment, she knew she was close to something, something that hadn’t yet taken shape but that, in its intensity—she knew very well how her own head worked—was becoming a premonition.
The story becomes ominous, filled with paranoia. Lola, it seems, is convinced that something terrible might happen if the two worlds of these neighbors come together.
Lola starts observing the neighbor’s child more closely, and he becomes a haunting presence—not always there, but permanently threatening. The boy borrows a stool and a wrench in what Lola sees as direct attacks on her privacy. Slowly, mysteriously, things around the house start changing position. The boy goes missing, and that same day Lola’s husband dies.
As Lola’s unnamed disease advances, things get deliberately more confusing. She keeps up her diligent preparation for death, now struggling to remember that her husband is dead and has left her in charge of the house. She often imagines a presence, probably a shadow of the boy. On a day on which she feels particularly haunted, the boy’s mother turns up at her door. They are now faced with each other. “If she took a step forward Lola would have to step back,” the narrator tells us, “and then they would both be inside the house. It was a dangerous situation.”
The boy is dead, his mother reminds her, and Lola recalls once again that her husband is, too. The deaths happened almost at the same time, creating a brief alignment between Lola and the child’s mother, whom she despised from afar for so long. Finally, Lola realizes that she is in fact not dying, and is forced to dwell in this numb loop, destined to forget and remember everything. “The abyss had opened up, and words and things were moving away at full speed, with the light, now very far from her body.”
Schweblin has said in interviews that this story is both about her family’s history of Alzheimer’s and about Argentina’s so-called retirement crisis, a problem in a country where, as in many, life expectancy is increasing but the quality of life has not kept pace. Yet her prose is so finely crafted and so welcoming to interpretation that such an explanation seems too neat. Too many questions remain floating in the air. “Breath from the Depths” is a story about aging and memory, about gentrification and the change of an urban landscape, about grief and mourning, and about how we relate to one another, to our loved ones and to strangers. The beauty of it, like that of “House Taken Over,” lies in its openness to interpretation.
The other stories in Seven Empty Houses are all similarly ambiguous, from the encounter between an eight-year-old and a possible pedophile in “An Unlucky Man,” in which pedophilia is never explicitly mentioned, to the treatment of dementia in “My Parents and My Children,” where an aging couple dances naked in front of their grandchildren and a policeman, their ailment unmentioned. In its own understated way, Seven Empty Houses is a deeply sad book filled with characters whose solitude is only partially relieved, where encounters between people feel both inevitable and untenable. And if there is an alignment between two people, it is always somehow unsatisfactory. The ironic, enigmatic epigraph to the collection suggests as much, borrowing a question from Andy Warhol: “You know two people who are very close?”